analyses lessons learnt from South Africa Under-23 team's Olympic football campaign


Two games into the 2016 Olympic Games Men’s football tournament and South Africa find themselves in the usual predicament of waiting on other teams to determine their own fate.

Something we might well have become accustomed to over the years is expecting favours from other teams to aid our cause of advancing at major international tournaments – like the senior national team did in the recent AFCON 2016 qualifiers and previously in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers – and now the on-going Rio campaign is no different for the men’s under-23 team.

After a valiant display against the host nation, and arguably the tournament favourites, Brazil in our opening Group fixture of the Summer Games, Owen Da Gama and his troops have unsurprisingly surprised the nation with a 1-0 defeat to Denmark in their penultimate round-robin fixture on Monday morning.

South Africa now find themselves bottom of Group A with Brazil and Iraq each a point ahead in trying to catch leaders Denmark.

With far less attacking threat than the hosts, the Danes managed to sneak through the exact same South African defensive pairing that brilliantly shut out Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Gabigol (a.k.a. Barbosa) two days earlier.

Da Gama was forced into a midfield adjustment, following the suspension of Mothiba Mvala, and opted to bring in defender Kwanda Mgonyama ahead of experienced holding midfielder Phumlani Ntshangase – a decision which ultimately left Eric Mathoho and Rivaldo Coetzee completely exposed with little-to-none cover through the middle.

Monday morning’s defensive display was one that put Abbubakar Mobara and Itumeleng Khune’s heroics to shame as neither were able to replicate their performances against a less-respected attack which featured Lasse Vibe, Emil Larsen and Robert Skov.

Though Khune made a few good saves, including a brilliant one-on-on block with his head to deny Vibe in the 29th minute, the experienced Bafana Bafana shot-stopper could do little to avoid conceding after being left completely exposed in the 69th minute.

After getting it spot on in the first game, Da Gama accepted criticism of his selection in the second as the team lacked defensive unity and attacking flow.

Despite enjoying majority of the possession, South Africa were forced to resort to shots from range due to a lack of space and movement up front. Lebogang Mothiba was unable to link with the midfield and was tightly marked by a tactically superior Danish defence.

Keagan Dolly, though lively and direct, struggled to break through a solid Denmark backline and put his educated left foot to good use throughout the match as he made sure to test Jesse Hojbjerg, as did Gift Motupa.

Deolin Meko, who had been deployed alongside Mngonyama in a defensive midfield role, was caught out of position on numerous occasions and failed to link the defence with attack. Tebogo Moerane, who has not played a competitive match since the Multichoice Diski Challenge season ended in February, came in at left-back and played a pedestrian role in the team until being substituted at half-time.

Half-time substitution saw Menzi Masuku come on for Moerane, despite underperforming in the opening match against Brazil, and continued his poor form as he was unable to create much in attack and failed in tracking back to help in defence once possession was lost.

Tashreeq Morris came on to replace Mothiba up front but only managed to get his name in the referee’s booking sheet with a needless foul in the Denmark half. Failed to create space for himself and lost all aerial duels.

Ntshangase eventually replaced Mngonyama late on, once the Scandinavians had already done the damage. Neither substitute brought in added threat in attack as South Africa failed to score for a second consecutive match at the Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia.

Despite the above-mentioned frailties, Da Gama’s troops need to show as much heart and determination against their Asian-based counter-parts as they did against Brazil. Despite being considered ‘minnows’ Iraq have already shown similar ability to South Africa by holding the Selecao to a 0-0 draw, therefore, the final group game will be a test of whose desire to remain in the competition is greater.

A convincing win by at least a two-goal margin over the Asiad Asia will see South Africa advance as group runners-up. Anything less might not be enough to get them through to the knock-out rounds, depending on the result between Brazil and Denmark.